Quentin Blake: Collaborating with Roald Dahl

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Roald Dahl HQ
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2:00pm, 11th March
Danny, Enormous Crocodile, Revolting Rhymes
First collaboration with Roald Dahl, The Enormous Crocodile. Their collaboration, which includes The Twits, The BFG and Matilda, lasts until Dahl’s death in 1990.

Following the release of 'Quentin Blake: In the Theatre of the Imagination' by Ghislaine Kenyon, we reveal an extract from the book that focuses on Quentin's collaborations with Roald Dahl.

Quentin Blake's collaborations with Roald Dahl have charmed generations of children with his imaginative depictions of characters such as The BFG, Matilda and The Twits.

In the below extract from the book Quentin Blake: In the Theatre of the Imagination, Ghislaine talks about his collaborations with Dahl on The Enormous Crocodile, Revolting Rhymes and Rhyme Stew, and Quentin himself describes drawing The Enormous Crocodile...

"When he is illustrating a book Blake always adjusts his drawing style and materials to the needs of the text: here his collaborations with Roald Dahl (1916–90) are revealing, because they demanded something new from Blake. Their first was The Enormous Crocodile (1979), Dahl’s first picture-book and a story which felt harderedged than those Blake had worked on up until then. At the same time Dahl’s characteristic ‘lack of introspection’ was also quite welcome (Blake thinks that Danny the Champion of the World is the only work of Dahl’s children’s fiction that has a different feel, and this is because it contains autobiographical elements). Blake describes the first collaboration:

'It was very interesting as a task to do, because it’s a kind of caricature, and that’s where Roald and I met very much. In a sense, what he wrote was like what I drew in the degree of exaggeration and comedy in it. But it was a bit fiercer. And the character of the crocodile was interesting to me, because he’s a sort of embodiment of evil, and I thought [it had] a little bit . . . of Richard III in it somewhere, but [also] a lot of stage villains . . . The other thing that it reminded me of was the crocodile in Punch and Judy . . . it’s that kind of convention, I think. And of course the thing about it is that if you look at what I’ve drawn, I mean I started off drawing crocodiles . . . but it’s not a real crocodile . . . In Roald’s words, it says he had hundreds of teeth . . . Crocodiles don’t have hundreds of teeth, they have teeth here and there in a rather random sort of way. But mine has . . . And because it’s not a real crocodile, but it’s got a sort of evil look in its eyes, it becomes something a bit different . . . in a way, it becomes this sort of cartoon character . . . So it has its own life.  Because I had to draw those teeth . . . I was drawing with a much harder pen-nib . . . Most of what I do is coloured with watercolour: I do a black-and-white pen drawing and then I colour it in watercolour, but in there you’ll find that there are inks as well, which are much brighter . . . more intense colours. So that in a sense the creatures become heraldic . . . not naturalistic . . . they’re part of a fable in a sense . . . the crocodile disguises itself as a tree . . . as a bench, and that’s why it can’t quite be a real crocodile, because they’re not so good at those things.'

The Enormous Crocodile

A similar thing happened with Revolting Rhymes (1982) and Rhyme Stew (1989), Dahl’s attempts to restore the dark side to what he considered were sanitized versions of well-known fairy-tales (often from the Grimm brothers) familiar to most children. The text of both these books, but especially the second one, are, if anything, grimmer than some of the Grimm originals – for example in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, Dahl goes as far as describing the smell of the witch burning in the oven. Blake did however manage to mitigate Dahl’s graphic verse with illustrations such as these two:

Apart from some marginal illustrations in sepia, Blake chooses a framing device for the plates, separating the image from the text, and the pen contours are more precise than they often are in his work, somehow making the drawing seem less graphically real. These images were originally commissioned as black-and-white drawings, but there was a later editorial request for coloured ones. Faced with the prospect of doing them all again, and with typical practical inventiveness, Blake cast around for a quicker solution. Because they were already well known to him, Blake was able to turn to the hand-coloured lithographs of the nineteenth-century French illustrator Gavarni. Gavarni’s colours are pale tints, and when Blake added these to his black-and-white drawings, the images took on what Blake calls an ‘old-fashioned’ feel, and the shading is in an obvious, waxy black crayon, again distancing the reader from reality. The horrible decapitation in the text is shown in this picture in the most unnaturalistic way possible, where gravity and gore play no part – in fact, Blake says, the idea for the coup de grâce came from a New Yorker cartoon by James Thurber.

In Dahl’s gruesome reinvention of Goldilocks, where Baby Bear ends up reclaiming his porridge by eating the girl who has eaten it, the scene is at first sight rather charming and domestic, until we notice the discreet remains on the floor."

Quentin Blake: In the Theatre of the Imagination by Ghislaine Kenyon is available from Bloomsbury Publishing.